India flies the red flagNEW DELHI - Although the process has been slow and shaky, India's massive defense modernization efforts, estimated at US$50 billion, are well underway.
Recent events highlight moves to achieve new levels of defense abilities, even as the country emerges as an economic powerhouse. The attempts aim to ramp up land, sea and air capabilities, given threat perceptions from China and Pakistan.
New Delhi recently cleared the Indian Air Force (IAF) to participate in the US "Red Flag" multinational aerial in August 2008, along with North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other US military allies.
The aerial combat training exercise has been hosted at the Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and the Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, since 1975, to train pilots for real combat situations.
"Red Flag" exercises are said to be among the toughest and will allow Indian pilots to witness at close hand the world's best air forces. India has participated in many US-led war games, but this will be at the highest level for the first time.
India's Defense Minister A K Antony has called "Red Flag" a great opportunity for the IAF. It follows the massive Malabar naval exercises in which US, Australia, Singapore, India and Japan participated, to the chagrin of Beijing.
India has been looking to considerably enhance its air strike capabilities. New Delhi recently signed a $10 billion agreement with Russia to jointly produce fifth-generation fighter aircraft and multi-role transport planes.
India and has also invited bids for 126 medium multi-role combat air crafts (MRCA). Global defense majors, including Boeing, EADS and Lockheed Martin are looking to bag the $10 billion deal.
Raytheon, a tier-1 vendor, recently signed agreements with five Indian firms, L&T, Wipro, Bharat Electronics, Godrej & Boyce and Data Patterns, that also anticipate offset requirements of the MRCA deal.
Apart from meeting the offset norms, foreign players have been keen to engage local firms, especially in the aerospace sector, as New Delhi has decided that all imported defense equipment should have at least 30% Indian components.
Over 50 American defense firms have offices in India now, including top players such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Honeywell and GE.
In the past two to three years, India has spent almost $11 billion on military arsenal, making it the largest arms importer in the developing world.
Moving onto another critical aspect, and also keeping in mind the fragile political situation in Pakistan, India has accelerated its ballistic missile defense (BMD) program and successfully tested an-"interceptor" missile over the Bay of Bengal this week.
The new "endo-atmospheric interceptor" put down a simulated electronic missile that is a prelude to striking a live Prithvi ballistic missile, modified to approximate an attack. According to Indian scientists, the "interceptor" missile could surpass the American Patriot Advanced Capability-3 system.
India established its "exo-atmospheric" hypersonic interceptor missile capabilities, borrowed from an Israeli system, in November last year when an incoming Prithvi missile was successfully destroyed.
State-controlled Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), the main coordinating agency, intends to develop a two-tier BMD designed to intercept an incoming missile at both the "second mid-course and terminal phases". The design seems to be in place and needs to be upgraded.
India has already developed short, medium and long-range ballistic attack missiles, Akash, Prithvi and Agni, capable of delivering nuclear payloads. These are apart from the difficult-to-detect land-hugging Brahmos cruise missiles, developed jointly with Russia.
Over the next year, DRDO also has plans to carry out advanced tests for the 250-kilometer Prithvi and the longest-range inter-continental 1,500-2,500km Agni missiles that cover China. Defense officials say that India is looking to produce 20 Prithvi missiles and 50 Brahmos missiles annually.
New Delhi is also seeking to considerably enhance its land-attack systems.
Reliable media reports this week say that New Delhi has inked an agreement with Moscow to import another 347 T-90S main-battle tanks (MBT), worth $1.2 billion. These tanks, criticized by some observers as too expensive, add to the 310 T-90S tanks already imported by India, at a cost of over $900 million, under a February 2001 contract.
The Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi, Tamil Nadu, has begun production of another 1,000 T-90S tanks under transfer of technology from Russia.
India wants to build an inventory of about 4,000 MBTs (with Russia contributing almost half the strength) to thwart any threat from Pakistan from the western front. Pakistan has been inducting T-80UD tanks from Ukraine and "Al Khalid" MBTs developed with assistance from China.
India's ongoing defense relationship with Russia is more than $10 billion, far higher than any competitor country, Israel, USA, Britain or France.
Big-ticket Indo-Russian defense deals have been announced even as India seeks to tie-up oil and gas deals with Moscow, especially at the Sakhalin blocks, where it already holds a stake.
As in Africa, Myanmar and the Middle East, New Delhi is wary of losing out to competitor China in the energy biddings in Russia. New Delhi has been willing to overlook Moscow's tantrums to renegotiate the price of ongoing defense deals, including aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov that the Navy wishes to procure.
Indeed, unlike the army and the IAF, there are murmurs of discontent from the navy. Recently, chief of naval staff, Admiral Suresh Mehta, warned, "Despite our defense public sector undertakings being full from naval orders for the next decade, we are unable to meet the demands of warship replacements."
A naval official has been quoted as saying it could be difficult for India to maintain current force levels over the next decade as aging ships, mostly Russian, are being decommissioned at a faster pace than new warships are being inducted. This is a genuine shortage.
Due to high global demand for cargo ships, along with the inability of market leaders China, Japan and South Korea to meet the requirements, Indian shipyards have registered an almost 2,000% hike in orders over the past five years.
Although state-controlled units (Cochin, Hindustan, Goa Shipyard Ltd, Mazagon Dock Ltd) have dominated shipbuilding, Indian private players (L&T, Adani Group, SKIL Infrastructure, ABG and Bharti Shipyard Ltd) have acquired capability. Thus, there is a need for the navy to aggressively look beyond state units.
Mehta's statements followed admission by Antony that the delivery schedule of aircraft carrier Gorshkov is "running slow". Quite a bit of India's naval strategy revolves around the 45,000-ton Gorshkov that is to replace the outdated INS Viraat, a Centaur-class aircraft carrier, purchased from Britain in 1986. Some experts have said that the Gorshkov decision was a very bad one and taken in haste to please a former Cold War ally.
India has, however, recently procured the warship USS Trenton from America and a Russian nuclear submarine is to be delivered by July next year.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.